12 Torturous Methods of Execution in History that Will Make You Squirm
12 Torturous Methods of Execution in History that Will Make You Squirm

12 Torturous Methods of Execution in History that Will Make You Squirm

Natasha sheldon - November 15, 2017

12 Torturous Methods of Execution in History that Will Make You Squirm
Woodcut showing examples of horizontal impalement. Google Images

Longitude and Transverse Impalement

Impalement is one of the earliest forms of execution, used from the second millennium BC. Impalement by deliberately driving a stake or pole into the body took two forms: longitudinal and transverse. Longitudinal impalement went through the anus and came up near the head through the chest or shoulder blades while transverse impalement pierced the victim horizontally through the torso: either front to back or vice versa.

The code of Hammurabi, a Babylonian Law code written around 1772BC records one of the earliest crimes punished by impalement: a woman convicted of killing her husband, for the sake of another man. Even without the killing, adultery seems to have attracted impalement as a penalty in other areas of ancient Mesopotamia.

But the punishment was also used as a very subtle form of mind control. It was common in the Assyrian and neo-Assyrian empires to impale the troops and generals of defeated foes in front of their countrymen- probably as a warning against potential future rebellions. Such acts acted as a gruesome form of muscle flexing, a way of reminding the conquered that they had been bested – and to ensure they did not forget this. This explains why monarchs such as King Ashurnasirpal II in the ninth century BC recorded their atrocities on the Nimrud Reliefs.

The Ottomans also practiced impalement, especially during the insurgence of Greek resistance against their Turkish overlords in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. It became common to display the impaled bodies of Greek rebels in local villages, to dissuade any form of support to future revolts by the villagers.

However cruel it may have been, impalement did send a compelling message. The impaled bodies of thousands of Turks planted along the river Danube in the 1640s on the orders of Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia, otherwise known as Vlad the Impaler, helped persuade the invading Turkish sultan to retreat.

Meanwhile, Europeans living in Persia and Syria, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries reported a relatively low incidence of the type of crime punishable by impalement. Frenchman Aubry de La Motraye claimed in the 14 years he lived in the Persian empire, he hadn’t heard of above 20 thieves impaled and only six highway robbers, while Alexander Russell, who lived in Aleppo between 1740 and 54 reported only half a dozen public executions in that time.

12 Torturous Methods of Execution in History that Will Make You Squirm
Execution by Gaunching by Schweigger Salomon. (1608) Google Images

Gaunching

Gaunching was a specialized form of impalement. Rather than insert the stake or pole directly into the individual, they were instead dropped or thrown onto metal spikes or hooks. French Botanist Joseph Pitton de Tournefort witnessed gaunching in the Levant during the early eighteenth century. He described how a rope hoisted the condemned up, so he hovered above a bed of sharp hooks. The executioner then released him and the victim was impaled, multiple, random times. The length of time it took a convict to die of gaunching was very much left to chance as it depended on how he fell upon the hooks. However, cutting their throats or beheading them could shorten the victim’s suffering.

A variation on gaunching by rope was to force the victim onto a hook fixed on a gallows’ crossbar. A German traveler Hans Jacob Von Buchenbach witnessed an incident of this nature in Turkey 1579. Von Buchenbach recorded how the unfortunate man was forced onto a hook fixed to a horizontal beam which pierced him through the abdomen. He was left hanging upside down in this way until he died.

Hooks could also be placed on walls and used to execute criminals and enemy soldiers in a very public way. This was the practice in Algiers where executioners threw the condemned from the city battlements onto hooks fitted in the walls below. Thomas Shaw, Chaplain for the Levant Company in Algiers in the 1720s, gave an account of this form of gaunching in practice. “The Moors and Arabs …. are thrown upon the chingan or hooks that are fixed all over the walls below, ” Shaw wrote, “where sometimes they break from one hook to another and hang in the most exquisite torments, thirty or forty hours.”

Alexander Russell, living in Aleppo in the 1740s knew of gaunching but said it was rarely used because of its extreme cruelty, Others verified this, such as Captain Henry Boyde who was held captive in Algiers for twenty years. Boyde recalled how during this time, he knew of only a few cases of gaunching, one of which was a Christian slave who had murdered his master.

However, in central Europe, gaunching was often used in times of war. The Thirty Years War, a particularly bloody conflict saw many atrocities committed by both sides. One instance was in 1677 when, in retribution for German atrocities against captured Hungarian troops, a Hungarian general flung his German captives onto hooks implanted in his fortress wall.

12 Torturous Methods of Execution in History that Will Make You Squirm
The execution of Anna Utenhoven. Google Images

Premature Burial

Burial alive or premature burial was the practice of burying a living individual in a grave. There, they would be left to suffocate due to lack of air or else were provided with an airway and left to die of dehydration and the sheer terror of being buried alive.

Tacitus describes one of the earliest instances of living burial in his ‘Germania.’ Amongst the Germanic tribes, anyone convicted of a dishonorable or shameful act was tied to a wicker hurdle and then forced face down into the mud. Dirt was then heaped upon them until they were completely buried. Tacitus said this was because the Germans believed crime should be exposed, but infamy concealed.

Later generations took this premise very much to heart, as crimes punished by premature burial were indeed infamous. Those convicted of the rape of a virgin in the thirteenth century Bavaria under the Schwabenspiegel Law were buried alive. So were those guilty of Infanticide. The Berlinisches Stadtbuch records that between 1412 and 1447, ten women were buried alive for this crime.

Lawyer and travel writer Eduard Osenbruggen, in his History of Germany, described the demise of one such woman in Ensisheim in 1570. The woman was placed in the grave between two layers of thorns. A bowl was placed over her face, fitted with a reed so that she could breath once buried. Then, the executioner jumped on her torso three times before covering her with earth.

However, elsewhere in Europe, women guilty of not so outrageous crimes risked premature burial. In fourteenth-century Denmark, Queen Margaret I decreed adulterous women should be buried alive. In Augsburg, Germany in 1505, a 13-year-old girl and a female cook convicted of murdering their master were buried alive under the gallows where their male accomplice, a 12-year-old boy had been beheaded for the same crime. Nuremberg in Germany also punished certain kinds of theft with premature burial- until, in 1515, this was deemed too extreme a penalty and it was replaced in the statutes by drowning.

Heretics also risked being buried alive in a Europe torn by religious schism. In 1597, an Anabaptist heretic called Anna Utenhoven was buried alive at Vilvoorde in Belgium after refusing to recant her beliefs. Utenhoven was buried standing up. As the grave filled, she was given further time to recant, but she declined. When only her head remained, the tried one last time. After he failed, Utenhoven was completely buried alive. Her death caused such unrest that the penalty for heresy was changed to fines or deportation.

12 Torturous Methods of Execution in History that Will Make You Squirm
Walling up alive- one form of immurement. Google Images

Immurement

Immurement takes its name from the Latin im (in) murus (wall). So it means ‘in the wall’ or ‘walling in.’ An immured person could not expect to die quickly for asphyxiation was not generally a risk. Instead, they would left to die of dehydration or starvation.

The most famous example of execution by immurement was that of the Vestal Virgins. Sworn to chastity, to break this vow was a betrayal of Rome and so a capital crime. The guilty Vestal would be stripped of her vestments and flogged before being dressed as a corpse and sent to join her funeral procession in a closed litter.

The Vestal’s mourning relatives would accompany the procession out of Rome to a place just outside the city walls called the Campus Sceleratus- the Evil Fields. Here, the Vestal’s tomb awaited her, complete with a couch, lamp and a little food. After the Pontifex Maximus commended the doomed woman to the gods, she would enter the tomb by a ladder. Once within, the tomb was sealed so that its entrance was untraceable.

It was believed that if a Vestal was innocent, the goddess Vesta would release her from the tomb. Sadly, victims of immurement in other cultures did not have even this slender hope to cling to. MA Hume-Griffiths a traveler who lived in Persia between 1900-1903 describes how the locals immured criminals:

The victim is put into the pillar, which is half built up in readiness; then if the executioner is merciful he will cement quickly up to the face, and death comes speedily. But sometimes a small amount of air is allowed to permeate through the bricks, and in this case the torture is cruel and the agony prolonged. Men bricked up in this way have been heard groaning and calling for water at the end of three days.”

One of the last cases of immurement was in Marrakesh in 1903 when Hadj Mohammed Mesfewi, a local cobbler was walled up for the murder of 36 women. Mesfewi had lured the women to his home, drugged them, robbed them of their valuables, then mutilated and killed them and buried them under his shop and garden. The court initially sentenced him to crucifixion, but when foreign officials objected, his sentence was changed. He was flogged every day until, on June 11, he was finally immured. His cries for mercy did not cease until two days later.

12 Torturous Methods of Execution in History that Will Make You Squirm
The Judgement of Cambyses by Gerard David (1498) Google Images

Flaying Alive

Flaying or skinning alive is another very ancient method of execution. The victim was stripped and their hands and feet secured to stop movement. Then, the executioner would slash the skin with a sharp knife and peeled it away from the muscles. The face was often flayed first to cause maximum suffering, as the victim was still conscious. To make the punishment worse, the executioner could part boiling the victim first for a few minutes as this softened the skin, making it easier to tear away.

The procedure left not only muscles but also nerves exposed. This was agonizing, but it also left the victim’s body vulnerable. So if the shock of the pain did not kill them, blood loss, and hypothermia or, if they survived long enough, infection would bring about death.

A number of cultures practiced flaying. An enraged Christian mob flayed the female philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria by killing her “with potsherds.” The Aztecs and Assyrians both flayed their enemies. In the Aztec’s case, prisoners of war were flayed alive while the Assyrians liked to make an example of the defeated rulers of their enemies by skinning them.

The displayed skin of a flayed person could act as a warning and a deterrent. A legend from Hadstock, Essex, in England told how medieval parishioners nailed the flayed skin of a Danish raider to the church door as a warning to other unchristian marauders. The legend proved to be true. When the door came to be repaired, pieces of human skin were found under the doornails.

From 900AD until it was banned in 1905, the Chinese practiced a type of flaying called Ling chi or death of a thousand cuts. This prolonged death was only awarded to those guilty of treason. One such person was Lui Jin, a sixteenth-century imperial eunuch. Lui Jin was the leader of “The eight tigers” a group of powerful Ming dynasty eunuchs. When their emperor began to neglect imperial affairs due to his dissolute lifestyle, Lui Jin effectively organized a coup and began to pass laws in the emperor’s stead.

However, once the emperor became aware of the situation, he had Lui Jin arrested and sentenced to Ling chi. The former court official was sentenced to 1,000 cuts a day over a three day period. Lui Jin only survived until the second day, just long enough received 300-400 of his second day of cuts.

12 Torturous Methods of Execution in History that Will Make You Squirm
Boiling Alive. Google Images

Boiling Alive

Boiling people alive, as a punishment for their crimes may not have been as common as some forms of execution. However, it enjoyed a brief but nasty time on the statute books of England in the sixteenth century and was used intermittently in Asia as a form of vengeance and intimidation.

Oil, water, lead- even hot wax could be used. The procedure involved either placing the victim in the liquid and heating it or else waiting for the liquid to come to temperature and lowering the victim into it from above. If the temperature was moderated correctly, the victim would remain alive and in agony until the overlying fatty tissue was destroyed, allowing major breaches in the veins and arteries.

Boiling as a means of execution entered the English statute books in 1531. Henry VIII enacted the punishment after the Bishop of Rochester and his household narrowly escaped being poisoned by the bishop’s cook, Richard Rouse. Rouse had laced a pot of porridge with poisonous yeast, which made seventeen people ill and caused the death of two. The conviction of a cook for poisoning in such a prominent household worried the establishment. So Rouse had to be made an example of to send out a strong message of discouragement.

Rouse’s death in 1532 was described by “The Chronicle of the Grey Friars of London” : “This year was a cook boiled in a cauldron in Smithfield for he would a poisoned the bishop or Rochester Fischer with his many servants and he was locked in a chain and pulled up and down with a gibbet many times until he was dead.”

The spectacle was not well received by the crowd. Some women fainted at the sight and sound of Rouse’s agony while others were not affected by anything other than boredom and said they preferred a good beheading. Perhaps this was why, aside from the execution of Margaret Davy in 1542, again for poisoning, Edward VI, Henry’s son finally removed boiling from the statute books in 1547.

12 Torturous Methods of Execution in History that Will Make You Squirm
The Brazen Bull. Google Images

The Brazen Bull

According to Diodorus Siculus, in 560BC, Perilaus, a metalsmith from Athens designed the brazen bull. Perilaus made the contraption for the Phalaris, the despot of the Sicilian city of Acragas. Phalaris was known for his excessive cruelty and so, with this in mind, Perilaus designed something especially unpleasant for Phalaris to execute his enemies in.

As the name suggests, the brazen bull was a hollow metal vessel in the shape of a bull. The condemned were forced inside through a trapdoor in the bull’s belly and then enclosed within. Once the victim was secured, a fire was lit beneath the bull, heating the metal- and cooking the unfortunate victim. Pipes fitted to the bulls mouth converted the sounds of the victim’s agonized screams into: “the tenderest, most melodious, most pathetic of bellowing’s” as Perilaus described them when he was pitching the bull to Phalaris.

Phalaris, perhaps shocked to find someone with an even sicker mind than his own, decided that Perilaus should give him a personal demonstration of the bull’s attributes. So he had the hapless metal smith bundled inside his invention and ordered the fires lit. As soon as the terrified Perilaus proved that the bull did indeed bellow ‘melodiously and pathetically’ Phalaris ordered the metal smith’s release- only to finish him off by throwing him off a cliff.

Phalaris put the bull to use in Acragus. It was said that once it was opened after an execution, the victim was nothing but bones, so perfectly de-fleshed that they ‘gleamed.’ These bones were reputedly made into bracelets and sold in the markets of Acragus. However, in 570AD, Telemachus overthrew Phalaris and had the defeated despot thrown into the belly of the bull- quite literally firing him.

However, this was not the last history saw of the brazen bull as a means of execution. The bull was particularly useful in making martyrs of the early Christian saints. Saint Antipas, bishop of Pergamon became the first Christian martyr in Asia Minor when Emperor Domitian ordered him to be roasted alive in the belly of the bull.

12 Torturous Methods of Execution in History that Will Make You Squirm
Carthusian monks, hanged, drawn and quartered on the orders of Henry VIII. Google Images

Hanged, Drawn and Quartered

The penalty of hanging, drawing, and quartering in England began to evolve as a penalty for treason in the thirteenth century. Matthew of Paris, a contemporary chronicler, recorded how a plot to kill Henry III resulted in two men, William de Marisco and his unnamed accomplice being put to death. The two men were drawn on hurdles to their place of execution and hung. De Marisco was posthumously disemboweled and quartered and his accomplice beheaded.

Henry’s son, Edward III elaborated on this grisly ritual. He was enraged when welsh nobleman Dafydd ap Gruffydd declared himself Prince of Wales and rebelled against the English crown in attempted to restore welsh independence. Once ap Gruffydd was captured, Edward came up with a suitable punishment for the recalcitrant Prince.

Firstly, he instigated a new law of High Treason, of which ap Gruffydd was found guilty and condemned to death. The manner of that death suitable expressed Edward’s ire. Ap Gruffydd was to be drawn to his place of execution because of his rebellion. He would then be hung for killing English nobles at Easter. He would be cut down and eviscerated while alive and his body quartered and displayed for his treachery to the King. In this way, Dafydd ap Gruffydd became the first noble to be hung, drawn and quartered.

The 1351 Treason Act made hanging, drawing and quartering the statutory punishment for treason- for men at least. Because it involved stripping the body, women were spared the penalty for modesties sake- and burned instead. Treason was not just against the king. The crime of petty treason: the murder of an employer or husband also earned the same penalty as high treason.

The victim was usually still alive during disemboweling. Major General Thomas Harrison, one of the signatories on the death warrant of Charles I actually hit the executioner as he cut him open. Others tried to avoid the worst by ensuring they died on the gallows. Guy Fawkes broke his own neck by jumping from the gallows at his execution in 1606. Often, sympathetic onlookers would pull on the condemned person’s legs to help them along before they were eviscerated.

The penalty for hanging, drawing, and quartering was modified from the late eighteenth century, with bodily mutilation occurring after death. The last person sentenced to it in 1839 after the Chartist Newport rising had their sentence transmuted to transportation and in 1870, the penalty was removed from the statute books.

12 Torturous Methods of Execution in History that Will Make You Squirm
The Breaking Wheel. Google Images

The Breaking Wheel

The wheel or ‘breaking wheel’ was a popular punishment in Europe from antiquity until the nineteenth century. Legend states it began with the martyrdom of St Catherine of Alexandria who died on the wheel in 305 AD for refusing to renounce her Christian faith. By the middle ages, those broken on the wheel were less exhaulted personages than Christian saints. Instead, they were murderers of one sort or another.

The punishment could take two forms. A person could either be broken by the wheel or broken on the wheel. The first version may well date from Frankish times when it was customary to dispose of certain criminals by driving a wagon over them. By the middle ages, it involved using a single wheel to break the criminal’s body.

Procedures from the blood court of Zurich in the fifteenth century describe how the condemned was placed belly down on a board. The wheel was then slammed down twice on each arm and leg. The ninth blow was to the spine. The broken body was then woven between the spokes of the wheel, which was then hammered to a pole. This pole was then erected and the victim left to die.

To be broken on the wheel involved tying the limbs of a criminal to the wheel and then smashing them with a cudgel. In France, the wheel revolved to add an extra dimension of uncertainty to the punishment. However, the number and sequence of blows were no random things. The court, at sentencing, determined them. If mercy was judged to be appropriate, the executioner would despatch a criminal after one or two blows by strangling them. Alternatively, they could be killed with one blow to the neck- or the chest. This chest blow was known in France as the coups de grace- the blow of mercy.

In the worst cases, limbs were broken legs first, working upwards, in a sequence guaranteed to make the pain last. In 1581, mass murder Peter Niers, a German bandit convicted of 544 murders was tortured for two days and given 42 strikes on the wheel before being quartered alive. Most criminals, however, would be left on the wheel to die after their cudgeling, eventually expiring of shock, dehydration or animal attacks. Most survived no longer than three days.

12 Torturous Methods of Execution in History that Will Make You Squirm
Scaphism. Google Images

Scaphism

Scaphism derives its name from the Greek term ‘skaphe’ meaning ‘anything scooped out“, a reference to the hollow in which the unfortunate victim was trapped while they suffered their fate. This hollow trap was formed from two boats stuck together, hence the other name for Scaphism- ‘The Boats”. Scaphism originated in Persia, but was known by a Greek name because the earliest and most detailed account of the practice is that of Plutarch in his “Life of Artaxerxes.”

The victim was Mithridates, a young soldier in the army of King Artaxerxes II. Artaxerxes brother, Cyrus the younger, had challenged his claim to the throne. The matter was decided between the two brothers at the Battle of Cunaxa in 401 BC, when a dart by Mithridates killed Cyrus. Artaxerxes richly rewarded the young soldier but he had a condition: everyone must think it was he, Artaxerxes who had killed his brother as in this way, he could consolidate his power. Mithridates agreed- but then could not help boasting that he had actually killed Cyrus. Artaxerxes punished his treachery by sentencing him to death by scaphism.

Plutarch describes how “two boats framed exactly to fit and answer each other” were acquired, and Mithridates was placed inside with his head, hands, and feet outside the boat. The executioner then offered him food and “if he refuse[d]s to eat it, they force[d] him to do it by pricking his eyes.” Once this was done, Mithridates was drenched in milk and honey, which was poured “not only into his mouth, but all over his face.” He was then kept with “his face continually turned towards the sun,” so that “it becomes completely covered up and hidden by the multitude of flies that settle on it.”

Mithridates was left in the boats to die. He continued to be fed. Meanwhile, his wooden shell began to fill with “what those that eat and drink must needs do.” By now, the sweet, sticky coating on his body plus the excrement collecting in the boats was attracting more insects. They began to feed upon him and reproduce “out of the corruption and rottenness of the excrement,” When the top boat was taken off once Mithridates was dead, Plutarch described how “they find his flesh devoured, and swarms of such noisome creatures preying upon. In this way Mithridates, after suffering for seventeen days, at last expired.”

12 Torturous Methods of Execution in History that Will Make You Squirm
The section from Stora Hammers Stone I showing potential Blood Eagle Execution. Google Images

The Blood Eagle

The blood eagle was a ritual execution described in Scandinavian skaldic poetry and the sagas as a ritual form of vengeance. Only two accounts exist: The Orkneyinga Saga and Snorri Sturlson’s Heimskringla. Both were written at least two centuries after the events they describe, leading scholars to debate their validity as proof that the blood eagle had a basis in fact.

The first death by Blood Eagle was that of Prince Halfdan Haaleg. Halfdan had killed the father of Einar- and so Einar had his revenge. The two accounts contradict themselves slightly as in one, Einar orders the execution while in the other, he carried it out himself. However, both describe what the blood eagle involved. The victim knelt with his back to the executioner, who severed his ribs from his spine. The executioner then pulled out the lungs through the gap to form ‘wings.’

This death was also described as being inflicted on King Aella of Northumbria by Ivar the boneless. Aella was responsible for the death of Ivar’s father, the semi-historical Ragnar Lothbrok. Ivar and his brothers stormed England in revenge and in, 867AD took the city of York and captured Aella. They then “caused the bloody eagle to be carved on the back of Aella and they cut away all of the ribs from the spine and then ripped out his lungs.”

However, the fact that Ragnar Lothbrok and his death are semi-mythological, coupled with the lack of evidence has led some scholars to believe that these accounts are suspect. Rather than being factual accounts, some view them as beefed up stories designed to entertain rather than inform, colored with inspiration from the tales of Christian martyrdom the Norsemen were now exposed to.

However, Alfred Smyth, former professor of medieval history at the University of Kent in the UK believed in the Blood Eagle as an actual mode of execution. He stated that the term for Blood eagle, ‘blodorn” was an Old Norse word that predates Christianity. Smyth’s belief could also be backed by material evidence. The Stora Hammars Stones in Gotland, Sweden date back to the Viking age. One of them, Stora Hammer I seems to depict a man about to be opened up from the back while an eagle hovers behind him. Does this depict the blood eagle or is it another allegory? The debate whether this particular torturous death was fact or fable will no doubt continue.

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